From Crain’s Detroit Business
A new economic development study of Woodward Avenue north of Eight Mile Road through Birmingham represents an early step in potentially extending Detroit’s planned light-rail line into the suburbs.
Currently, there is no plan for the modern streetcar-style transit service to go north of the city limits near the Michigan State Fairgrounds — something critics have warned will make the Detroit project less effective because it doesn’t tap into neighboring communities.
But a task force of elected officials and stakeholders from Ferndale, Huntington Woods, Royal Oak, Berkley and Birmingham was organized in September and has commissioned a first look at what must be done to create the right economic development climate for when the train service is built through those communities.
The task force is spending $13,000 of a $32,700 planning research grant from the Michigan Department of Transportation to hire Grand Rapids-based community planning firm LSL Planning Inc. to develop a transit-oriented development plan for Woodward from Ferndale to Birmingham, said Heather Carmona, executive director of the Woodward Avenue Action Association.
The nonprofit association aimed at bolstering Woodward Avenue organized the “Transform Woodward” Transit-Oriented Development Task Force in September 2010, and the plan is expected to be completed by September.
LSL, which has a Royal Oak office, will create a “framework” plan for Woodward from Ferndale to Birmingham that will include a model transit zoning ordinance, development strategies and concept plans, she said.
The remainder of the grant will be used for initial data collection, outreach and communication.
The communities have different zoning for their respective portions of Woodward — some are blends of retail and residential, while others are purely commercial — and the study will be used in efforts to align rezoning that maximizes economic development along the corridor.
“Until now, there hasn’t been consensus among these communities on what they envision for transit and how (transit-oriented development) factors into that,” Carmona said. “Cities plan in isolation. Now they’re looking at their shared borders and how that impacts the whole on Woodward in Oakland County.”
Also on the task force are representatives from the SMART bus system, Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, Michigan Suburbs Alliance, Detroit Zoo and Beaumont Hospital.
Transit-oriented development is typically part of new commuter rail projects.
Installation of a rail transit line typically creates $4 to $8 in new economic development activity in that corridor for every $1 spent on the line, transit insiders say.
The Federal Transit Administration — the agency that provides much of the federal capital funding for new mass transit projects — defines transit-oriented development as “compact, mixed-use development within walking distance of public transportation.”
The FTA can provide funding for transit-oriented development activities such as real estate acquisition, demolition, site preparation, utilities, parking and improvements for pedestrians and bicycles.
The Detroit Department of Transportation‘s $528 million plan is a nine-mile line from downtown Detroit to the city limits at Eight Mile Road. The Woodward task force has met with DDOT and its hired planners to discuss the status of the city’s project.
“The task force is interested in aligning the work they’re doing now (with LSL) with (DDOT) and keeping communication open,” Carmona said.
The city project is being financed by a mixture of public and private money, and construction (pending approval of federal aid) is expected to begin next spring.
Some of Detroit’s most prominent business leaders, companies and organizations have pledged $100 million toward the rail effort — something the private sector hasn’t done in Oakland County.
And politically, there is some skepticism from Oakland County’s dominant political force, Executive L. Brooks Patterson. He’s said he’s supportive of regional mass transit, but noted that there is no consensus on funding.
“I’m going to be a hard sell,” he said. “I’m not going to block it. I don’t have the ability to block it. Some serious research has to be done on where it goes and who pays for it. Right now, none of that is happening.”
There also is a need for a regional transit authority to govern a multicounty system, and providing funding through some mechanism — probably a regional tax. Efforts to create a regional transit authority have stalled over disagreement on funding-split formulas between the city and suburbs.
Capital costs are a major factor for extending the line into Oakland County.
Traffic improvements to Woodward made by the Michigan Department of Transportation north of the city limits make it more costly to build a rail line there — perhaps up to $500 million to extend the line to 11 Mile Road.
“It could be a very expensive extension to advance north of Eight Mile,” said Mark Ryan, a vice president with San Francisco-based engineering firm URS Corp., in a previous interview with Crain’s. The firm, which has a Detroit office, has been contracted by the city to handle the preliminary engineering for the rail line and also prepare the funding application for federal transit money.